Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On Public Transit and Human Connection

T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land about his daily commute on the subway to his job at Lloyd's Bank in London. He described his fellow soul-dead commuters thus:

"A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet."

The shared experience of riding the T (Boston's subway) or taking the bus is really interesting to me. Daily, I sit in closer proximity to strangers than I would willingly sit with my friends. Wedged in between the chunky lady with the runny nose and the slouching, sprawling "tough guy," I struggle to manipulate my oversized New York Times and wish I had an e-reader.

As I brush arms with the sniffling woman next to me, I rarely stop to consider that she, like me, has hopes and fears for the coming day. Like me, she has family and friends, and like me, she too is on a journey (both literally and metaphorically). And on the rare occasions when thoughts like this do come to mind, I never seriously consider talking to my fellow passengers because of what I like to call "the Great Public Transit Taboo": You don't invade people's privacy and you let them believe that they are on a solitary trip as much as possible. If you violate this cardinal rule, people are bound to look at you like you're crazy. If you're also dishevelled and have a questionable body odor, they are likely to get up and move to a different part of the subway car.

Creating this impenetrable bubble to shut out all other human beings comes more naturally to some than others. As an introvert who has spent half her life wrapped up in a book or a private reverie, it is pretty easy for me to ignore the other commuters. But at the same time, I think it's making me develop a rather self-involved mindset (at least for that hour every morning and every evening).

The other day, the typically huge crowd of people exited the subway at Park Street Station downtown. We experienced the usual annoying bottleneck as we all tried to rush up the stairs as quickly as possible, toward fresh air and our daily grind. Suddenly, a young woman sat down on the steps as though faint or sick, creating another obstacle to get around and further slowing the mass exodus of commuters. She sat down right in front of me and my first thought was along the lines of, "How dare she further clog these stairs!" Fortunately, this thought was a mental (or moral) slap in the face and I paused to ask if she was okay. She thanked me and said that yes, she was fine. Without another word, I allowed myself to be swept away in the tide of people hurrying on with their individual lives.

And this was someone about my age, who looked and dressed a lot like me! I hate to even think this, but if she looked less put-together or if she appeared to be from a different "social group," would I have even bothered to ask quickly if she was okay? If she looked and smelled like the lady who lives at the bus stop on my street, would I have looked twice? It's no wonder that, even in a crowded, teeming city like Boston, people feel alone, unseen, unacknowledged. Dehumanized.

This past weekend, I had a lot of fun volunteering at the first annual Boston Book Festival. One of the events I attended was a spoken word poetry event in which high school and college students performed their poetry. There was a girl from Minneapolis (woot woot! If I were a more impulsive person, I would have given her a shout-out) who spoke a poem about a man she'd had a conversation with on the bus. Perhaps breaking the Great Taboo isn't so frowned upon in Minnesota (I wouldn't know, of course; I only rode the bus about 2 or 3 times in all 20+ years of my life there). In any case, her poem--which she presented with preacher-like fervor--got me thinking about breaking the Taboo myself. But would it really do any good? Or do I just ask that because I hate doing something uncomfortable?

Perhaps I will just conclude with a quote from the movie Crash about very diverse people trying somehow to reach the humanity in their fellow travellers:

"It's the sense of touch. In any real brush past people, people bump into you...I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something."


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  2. Perhaps I am a strange fellow -- no, strike that, I am a strange fellow, without a doubt -- but I have never believed in the "Great Public Transit Taboo." Fascinating people ride the T every day and each person has a story to tell. In a novel, you have, on average, what? Five major characters? Seven? Ten? Think of how many stories are waiting to be told on a subway train.

    This past summer when I was in Boston frequently, I struck up conversations with people on the T. In fact, I did that even in high school when I was shy. Without giving it more in depth thought, I gained two friendships by it. Much of my summer passed by in the presence of one of those two friends.

    Growing up I was introverted. Not until college did I really start to find my own way. In situations, in which I feel comfortable, such as dances, I cut the dashing figure of a confident, sociable man. So much so, in fact, that one might never think that I was ever introverted or that, in secret, I still am. But even now I am thinking of a party to which I've been invited and at which I will know only one person, and I'm nervous.

    You lose more in keeping yourself in isolation than you lose by taking a risk and receiving a funny look in response. Not that I think you will find that. People are, at their core, both kind and lonely.

    Would you like to ride the T together sometime, Dustin can join us, in which I make small talk with people and you can document how many conversations I enter into versus how many strange looks I receive?